Penny Locaso teaches us how to stop being ‘busy,’ confront our fears, and prioritise what matters
“It’s not healthy or possible to be happy every minute of every day,” Penny Locaso says. At first blush it might seem an odd thing for the author of ‘Hacking Happiness’ and operator of HackingHappy.co to say. After all, shouldn’t someone trying to sell the idea of happiness, someone who is “on a mission to teach 10 million humans how to intentionally adapt by 2025 in order to future proof happiness,” be all sunshine and try to convince us we can be too?
“If you’re looking for silver bullets, this is not it,” she says. “There’s no such thing as a silver bullet for happiness.”
Happiness, Locaso says, is not a goal nor is it an end state: It’s a way of being. The good news is, we can learn to cultivate a happiness practice, hack our psyches to produce the results we want. The bad news is, it takes hard work, work that is never finished.
The first step is defining what happiness means for you.
According to Locaso, happiness does have a mortal enemy. Whilst it might not be your first thought, this nemesis is busyness. We often say we’re so busy when really we mean we’re anxious, distracted, overwhelmed, or afraid of missing out. In her ‘busy = bullshit’ challenge, she dares people to remove the word ‘busy’ from their vocabularies. ‘Busy’ creates a cycle in the mind that can derail us, she says.
“How you start the day gives the best chance for success in how that day is going to play out.” Rather than starting your day checking email, flipping on the news, or making a to-do list, take 10 to 15 minutes to yourself to set an intention for the day. Do something to make yourself happy straightaway, rather than leaving it for the end if you happen to get to the bottom of your list—which let’s face it never happens. If you gift yourself the start of a day, it can pay dividends long term.
When we get to work, we tend to find reasons to keep ‘busy’ or at least appear that way, giving off the illusion of productivity. But our brains work best in stillness, Locaso says. We sink into our default mode network and connect the dots we don’t give ourselves the chance to when we’re busy being busy. Companies such as Google and Atlassian incentivize employees to immerse themselves in deep thinking and creativity in order to innovate.
“You’d have to argue that they’re doing something right,” she said. “How can we solve the hardest problems we have with no time to think?”
The COVID-19 pandemic has created plenty of turmoil and anxiety, which leads us to try to cram busyness into every moment, trying to recreate the productivity we convince ourselves we had before. It also presents a silver lining, though. We have a chance to reconnect with the things that do bring us joy: our kids being around more, getting regular exercise, reconnecting with nature. The challenge is a lot of us want to change but just don’t know how.
“Trying to take the old into the new doesn’t fit,” Locaso said. How do we change our behaviour whilst we have the time now? Embrace the disruption to reset our foundations and create a different kind of future. “It takes practice, showing up every day in ways that feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar but intentional.”
Locaso has this down to a science. The Intentional Adaptability Quotient (IAQ) measures how skilled people are at making intentional change in “a complex and uncertain environment that is evolving at speed”—aka ‘life,’ she points out.
The first step is focus. We live in a world designed to distract us, Locaso says, and we need to create space for the things that are important to us. Rather than adding them onto our never-ending to do list, we can’t add new unless we takeaway first. Doom-scrolling on our phones or losing ourselves in the news perpetuates feelings of fear. “Be aware of the negativity you allow in,” she warns. Once you have taken away the noise, be intentional about what you put back in.
Focus will allow you to redirect your energy to things you can control rather than worrying about what you can’t. That makes room to summon the courage to reprogram ourselves through practice.
“People long for change, but we’re also afraid of it,” Locaso said. We allow ourselves to get caught up in being busy, to get lost in what else is going on rather than face our innermost fears and desires. Happiness is found at the intersection of longing and avoidance and the only way to realise it is to lean into fear. Confront it and use it to grow.
That frees us up to be curious once more, like we were when we were kids, trying to learn as much as we could about ourselves, about others, about the world around us.
“Curiosity became a luxury. We do it in our spare time, of which we have none,” Locaso said.
These steps lead us to self-accountability, human connection, experimentation, and reflection. Satisfying our innate curiosity makes us happy. Because we learn, it makes us better.
Putting in the Work
Hacking happiness is not an overnight occurrence. It’s a practice, like yoga. It’s never complete. A good way to ease into it is what Locaso calls ‘micro bravery.’ “Do something small that scares you every day,” she said. “This is how you practice getting comfortable with discomfort.” It doesn’t matter if someone else might think it silly, it’s relative to your comfort level. As you build up resilience over time, it becomes easier to make bigger changes. She likens it to a dimmer that gradually gets turned up rather than a lightbulb moment.
Locaso spent her youth pursuing an ideal of success. She climbed the corporate ladder quickly, and by 39 she was an executive with a global giant. From the outside, it looked like she had a perfect life, even to her. But she found herself unfilled and longing for a different life.
“The moment for me was thinking, ‘What are the things that make me happy?’ It was things that were sidelined by my busyness. I decided to realign the foundations of my life toward these things: human connection, positively impacting the lives of others and being fully present.
Ultimately, Locaso knows, no matter what advice she can give, it’s up to individuals to do the work. But she’s living proof that it’s worth it.
“I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life,” she said, “but the opportunity it opens up is magical. We are capable of so much more than we realise.”